Gorillas and Cows

At last night’s meetup of the Software Testing Club Atlanta, John Stevenson hosted a workshop on Creative and Critical Thinking. John had a lot of good information for us, had us play games, and fostered a lot of good discussion.

One of the discussions circled around the topics of information overload and Alan Page‘s favorite gorilla, Daniel Simons’ The Monkey Business Illusion. The two are almost opposite sides of the coin – how to deal with lots of information, and how to deal with seemingly-unrelated (and thus perhaps invisible) facts/events when I’m concentrating on something.

If you’ve never seen the gorilla video, watch it now.
If you have seen it, watch this version all the way through to the end.

I raised two points last night, and I’m interested in your thoughts on them.

1. “Information Overload,” though these days often attributed to the overwhelming quanity of “stuff” available on the Internet, is not really a new problem. When I was a young boy — long before the web and the overwhelming popularity of cat videos — I would walk into the public library and gaze up at row upon row of bookshelves. There was no way I could ever read them all. I could either become “overloaded” by the volume of information available, or I could choose a single book at a time. Digital information is no different, we “simply” need to discern what’s important to us.

2. While the gorilla and the illusion of attention are interesting, there are probably times when we just don’t care. If ours is a mission-critical job, and our paycheck — or someone’s life — depend on counting basketball passes then noticing the oddity in the scene is actually a bad thing. a cow For a concrete example, consider the cows the field. To the kids in the back seat they’re something interesting to notice, perhaps an unusual sight and fun to count. Mom who’s driving the car on a crowded highway should probably not notice the cows unless one is making a mad dash toward the road.

So what do you think? Join in the conversation in comments here or over on twitter.

It’s Time to Share What You’ve Learned

Adam Goucher posted this last week on Twitter:
notion; if your 'engineering' team is not doing enough interesting things for 1 blog post a week, you likely have a problem.

I think it’s certainly worth considering – I mean, how’s the old saying go, something about learning something new every day? In our day and age, and especially in the software development arena in which I work, there’s always something new going on, a new challenge to overcome. Dan Pink, author of Drive, talks about our desire for Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose — Mastery is the urge to get better and better at something that matters. I hope you’re not stuck in a position where you’re not learning, where you don’t have an opportunity to improve your skills.

So, assuming that you’re learning something at least once a week, what are you doing with that knowledge? Are you sharing it with your co-workers, with your peers, with others in the industry?

There are plenty of reasons why some people don’t blog publicly. Some ideas are considered proprietary; sharing them outside of your company is frowned upon or may even be a fireable offense. Consider though, are you at least sharing your learning with others inside your company – via an internal Wiki, blog, or newsletter? Does your team get together for lunch and talk about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it? If not, what does this say about the investment you and your company are making?

Once you walk out of the office at the end of the day, your brain (hopefully) doesn’t stop working, and neither does your opportunity to learn and to help others. During my time as a leader in a Boy Scout troop, one of our ongoing philosophies was that we learn best by teaching. When a boy said they didn’t know how to do something, we’d get them some instruction and ask them to be ready to teach a few other boys at the next campout.

So when you’ve just overcome a problem that’s been bugging you for a few hours, learned a new programming pattern, or discovered a new tool that saves you some time, it’s time to teach someone else. Generalize the challenge, so you’re not giving away any of your company’s trade secrets. Start by explaining it to your favorite rubber duck, then get your explanation down on paper – or at least in a text editor. Send it out to a few trusted colleagues, or start a simple blog. You don’t have to advertise it widely if you don’t want – just the act of writing it will solidify the concepts and lead you to learn it more in-depth. This is also a really great confidence-builder: As you keep doing this, you’ll start to realize that you are becoming an expert, that people are looking to you for answers, and that your boss should realize what a valued employee you really are.

Here’s an advanced step. When you’re ready — or even better, before you think you really are — stand up. Give a talk on the subject at your office. Get involved with a tech meetup in your area and offer to present it there. People aren’t looking for perfection; they’re looking for you to share what you know and how you’ve learned it (including the stumbles along the way).

Of course, to circle back to Adam’s point (or what I believe it to have been), perhaps the lack of blogging from your team is pointing to a lack of challenge, a lack of learning. Then yea, “you likely have a problem.”

Agree? Disagree? Add your thoughts to the comments here or join the discussion over on Twitter.

Organizational Knowledge and Communication

Jon Udell, of who’s ideas, discussion and writing I’ve long been a fan, wrote in an article last week: Pub/sub networking for enterprise awareness:

In theory everyone talks to everyone and everything gets taken care of. In practice, as we know, not so much.

This is so true, and frustrating for me. My guess is that it’s also frustrating for most people, though few would have been able to describe so well just what it is that’s so deficient about corporate or organizational communications. We’ve all heard it, or said it ourselves — or both — “I’m swamped by email, but I never know what I really need to know.”

I daresay that the info you need is there somewhere, bueried in co-workers’ inboxes or in documents on their laptops. If you’re somewhat fortunate, your org has some sort of repository (SharePoint or similar), though most likely it’s not very well organized or indexed for searching.

I’ve tried, in most of the companies and groups in which I’ve worked, to bring some sort of organization and order to the information storage side of things. To various extents, I’d like to think I’ve been successful. To be honest though, I’ve had the most success when I’m working with very technical people who, by their nature, prefer order over chaos. When I’ve been working with more business-oriented or creative folks, they see less need to contribute. They’re often grateful when I’m able to find things for them, but they’ve just not been as willing to invest the time to keep things tidy. Different personalities, different priorities.

In any case, what’s still missing even from the most structured and well-maintained data repository, is the communication and update notification that Jon describes in his thought experiment. If you’ve found the right combination of tools and people to implement something approaching his scenario, let us hear about it.

Knowledge, Marketing and Blogs, Oh My

It’s been a while since I last wrote about knowledge and the sharing thereof, but a few things have been bouncing around my mind recently. Jon Udell and Marty Collins were just discussing the relationship between blogs and technical marketing, and in there they talk about giving away knowledge to inform customers and help them use products and services more effectively – just the thing that makes so much sense to me but so often is met with overwhelming resistance.

Marty uses the “marketing” term, I come from the customer support side of things, but I think the two can work hand-in-hand. Who are you more likely to do business with next year – the company who sold you a product and then charged for support, or the company who’s employees gladly help you use the product you bought? Sure, you know it, and not only will you buy from the friendly and helpful company, you’ll rave about them to your friends and colleagues.

I saw that firsthand, back in the mid-to-late 90’s as I, with my manager’s blessing, “gave away” answers every day in usenet newsgroups and at user group meetings & symposia. Much of this was the same sort of information that we were selling via support contracts, and while I made sure that I wasn’t shorting our contract customers I was also able to keep a lot of other customers happy at the same time. Happy customers buy more products and services and pass along good recommendations to their peers as well.

Effective support can become “stealth” marketing, as long as it’s truly helpful and honest. It must be done with the main intent being to help, the goodwill and any word-of-mouth marketing’s got to be just a side effect. Otherwise it’ll feel dishonest and slimy and you don’t want slime passed around amongst (now former) customers.

Jon and Marty were also talking about transparency, meaning the use of blogs and other such tools. Obviously I’m all for that; the principle of transparency, “narrating your work” really resonates with me.

Combine blogs with another whole topic, that of tagging (and yes, I’m working on an article or two about tagging in general and the use of del.icio.us in particular) and there’s a huge opportunity for like-minded people to find the bits of niche knowledge that they need or want. As Isabel recently wrote, the combination of transparency, tagging and good search can open “opportunities for people who may be 99% unlike you to leverage your research on the 1% common ground you share.” In other words, helping more of us play in The Long Tail of knowledge.